Maria Luigia Borsi & John Novacek at Wigmore Hall/Italian Song

E l’Uccellino; Sole e Amore
Ave Maria; Senza Baci
Salve Regina
La Tua Stella
Sogno d’Or; Foglio d’Album
Ave Maria
Terra e Mare
Chanson Groenlandaise
Serenata; M’Ama non M’Ama

Maria Luigia Borsi (soprano) & John Novacek (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 17 January, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Maria Luigia Borsi. ©Brad ReppThe interview with Maria Luigia Borsi which appeared on this website (link below) in advance of this, her UK solo debut concert, suggested a fastidious and thoughtful artist, one content with her lyric soprano and inclined to apply it to heavy roles such as Madam Butterfly rather than to stretch it to fit them.

The title of the programme promised an examination of a field of Art-Song rarely heard. In the event this proved hardly worthwhile: the content was very short measure: a mere forty-eight minutes of music, plus nine more for the two encores.

First impressions of Borsi’s voice were that it is mellow and rounded, not shrill, except for some ostentatious excursions into the stratosphere but with plenty of muscle.

The finest song of the evening was probably the first, “E l’Uccellino”, which seems to have attracted Puccini’s productive imagination, its lyrical line contrasted with a jumpy accompanying figure crowned each time by a cheeky high grace note. Borsi’s words in her interview about the importance of following the detail of the composer’s directions were here fulfilled, little ritardandi negotiated, corners in the music neatly turned and a soft ending. The original but less personally committed “Terra e mare” ultimately disappoints, with the composer unable to think of anything more inspiring to end the song than a resolution into the major. Between two outer episodes of stormy turbulence a central section of reassuring dreams, set largely in the chest register, revealed the singer’s useful lower extension.

Maria Luigia Borsi. ©Benjamin EalovegaThe other Puccini songs display invention more familiar in the operas. “Sole e amore” of 1888 emerges eight years later as the Act Three quartet in “La bohème” (but here without the composer’s tendency to repeat himself). “Salve Regina”, soupy and pious in style and a reminder of the Puccini family’s links with ecclesiastical music, is converted into a choral trio in “Le Villi”, while the music of “Sogno d’or” re-appears as the quartet in “La Rondine” five years after Puccini wrote it for a popular magazine. Borsi’s pianissimo high ending was an auspicious foretaste of her forthcoming Magda in Toulon.Mascagni’s “Ave Maria” gives added value to the Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” and has been recorded by both sopranos and tenors. The composer sets formidable problems for the singer: the soloist’s entrance, the later appeal to the Virgin and the final line are written in a high tessitura, as the voice initially sings in descant to the melody before joining it in unison. Some long phrases demand accomplished breath-control. In both areas Borsi passed with merit.

The uncomfortable high-lying line is again apparent in the passionate phrases of his “Serenata”, correctly compared unfavourably in the programme note by Brad Repp with Tosti’s song of that title. As well as his unsympathetic treatment of the human voice, Mascagni seems to have been ill-suited to the miniature framework of the song. He is heavy-handed in the Serenade, while in “M’Ama non m’Ama” Borsi’s acting with the flower could not mask the composer’s laboured humour.

I had felt from early in the recital that this was more a showcase for the artists than a real illumination of this dark corner of the song repertoire. Catalani, the short-lived recipient of Toscanini’s admiration certainly did not benefit from their performance of his recently-discovered setting of the “Ave Maria”, whose words were rather foggy. “Senza baci” gave opportunities for declamation, while his “Chanson Groenlandaise” (later to provide the melody for “Ebben? ne andro lontana”) gave little respite from their relentless intensity. The performers seemed to be trying to bulk out what was, overall, thin musical fare. Most in the audience clearly found this exciting; to me it was over-stated.

The pianist John Novacek had been excessively prominent throughout the evening. The short (under three minutes) piano piece by Puccini which began the second half seemed superfluous. True, he showed some refinement in the first two Puccini songs and the occasional brief dialogue with the singer could be enjoyed, but the outstanding impression was of percussive power misapplied.

Where his approach was really damaging was in the first encore. The gently rolling phrases of Gastaldon’s “Musica proibita” were replaced by stiff, over-dramatised playing, which on some occasions had Novacek bouncing from the piano stool. Borsi occupied a position a little nearer to the song’s real character but she was an all-too-willing collaborator in the massacre of “O sole mio” which followed. Di Capua’s little love song has suffered some indignities in its time but never has it been treated as a parody of a dramatic scena. The conventional pause on “Ma n’atu sole” was nothing compared to the pianist’s assault on the keyboard, the singer’s stamping feet and the screamed insertion of a note in the final cadence which must have been inspired by the recent opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

There was plenty of evidence during the course of the evening to suggest that Borsi has the potential to be a lyrico-spinto soprano. As such, she would have been better advised to offer a programme of operatic arias to display her voice. Perhaps that kind of programme is no longer welcome at Wigmore Hall.

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